Yesterday afternoon, I got together informally with a couple of friends who wanted me to teach them some Ashtanga yoga. We know one another from our local Buddhist group. This is not the first time we have gotten together to do yoga; we have gotten together a couple of times in the past, and I had taught them Suryas A and B and a couple of standing postures, so they are not complete strangers to the practice (for more details, see this post).
At the beginning of practice yesterday, I decided to try introducing a new element into our session: I suggested to my friends that we try chanting the opening invocation. The last couple of times we got together to practice, we had just gone straight into the Suryas without doing the opening chant.
My suggestion immediately encountered resistance from my friends: They felt that there is no reason for a Buddhist to be chanting something that originates from a different philosophical tradition. Which is true, in a very significant sense: From the viewpoint of traditional Indian philosophy, Yoga is regarded as one of the orthodox schools (because it accepts the authority of the Vedas in spiritual matters), while Buddhism (along with Jainism and Carvaka) is regarded as a heterodox school because it does not accept Vedic authority. I tried explaining to my friends that this is just honoring tradition, and that chanting this invocation does not mean that you are becoming a Hindu or anything. But they still desisted: "Why don't we just do the yoga?" one of my friends said. Sensing that I wasn't gaining any traction, I decided not to push the issue, and so we just went ahead with the practice without doing the opening chant. The rest of the practice went very well, despite this initial hiccup.
I'm quite sure that this is not the first time in the history of Ashtanga in this country that people have had hangups with doing the opening (or closing) chant, to put it mildly. I'm pretty sure that those of you out there who teach Ashtanga in gyms or public recreational facilities probably face the same kind of resistance to chanting from your students. Am I right? In my experience, students in yoga studios tend to be more receptive to chanting, but again, this might be a generalization, I'm not sure.
To be honest, when I first started doing yoga, I was also rather uncomfortable with chanting: I think it is no exaggeration to say that for most people in this country, chanting is the form of physical expression that is most closely associated with religious devotion: For the average person, to do a chant in honor of something or somebody is almost certainly an expression of devotion to that thing or person.
Over the years, I have come to find a way to reconcile my personal religious beliefs (I'm a Buddhist) with doing the Ashtanga opening and closing chants. Personally, I see the opening chant as an expression of gratitude to Patanjali: If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be practicing this yoga. This being the case, it is only natural to begin my practice with a chant honoring and saluting him. And it doesn't bother me that it is in Sanskrit. I guess it also helps that I personally find Sanskrit to be a beautiful language... in any case, can you imagine how cheesy it would be to do the opening invocation in English, with all those references to a thousand white heads and the poison of samsara?
But perhaps more importantly for me, I really feel that doing the opening invocation sends an important message: It reminds us that the practice isn't just physical exercise. It reminds us that the practice is ultimately a practice in connecting to something bigger (and hopefully better) than our individual intellects and egos. Because of this, I can't help feeling that to do the practice without the opening chant is to remove something very important from it: Something which reminds us that we are more than our physical bodies and minds.
But maybe this is just me. Do you feel the same way? If you are a teacher, do you also encounter the same resistance to doing the opening and closing chants among your students? How do you handle such situations? Please share.